The background of the word “chaplain” provides an important lesson about care giving. The word itself traces back to Bishop Martin of Tours. According to tradition, in the fourth century, while he was still a young soldier, Martin shared his cloak with a beggar. The cloak became a reminder of this simple act of compassion and kindness. Martin later became a bishop, and upon his death, his cloak (capella) was enshrined as a reminder of his compassion for a fellow human being.
Centuries later, Charlemagne appointed priests to care for his relics. One of the relics was believed to be St. Martin’s cape, and the priests became known as the “cappellani,” or “keepers of the cape.” The cape and other relics were housed in a small room connected to a cathedral, and the room itself was termed the “capella” or “place of the cape.” This came into English as “chapel.” Gradually, the term “chapel” came to mean a small place for worship or prayer other than the main church, and a priest who served in a chapel was called a “chapelain” in French, which is the immediate source of the English word “chaplain.”
Today in America, a clergy who ministers in any context outside a traditional congregation may be called a chaplain. There are chaplains serving in hospitals, prisons, and corporations. Police and fire departments may have chaplains. There are chaplains ministering to truckers and motorcyclists. Others may be found at rodeos, fishing tournaments, campgrounds, and many other places where people gather. Similarly, someone who provides religious ministry for military personnel is typically called a chaplain, regardless of the faith group he or she represents. Interestingly, many service personnel call their chaplain “Padre,” which is the Spanish word for “Father,” and comes from the Catholic tradition.
The above is an excerpt from the book, Military Ministry: Chaplains in the Twenty-First Century, by Paul Linzey and Keith Travis. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2022. Paul and Keith were military chaplains who now teach and write.